Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On failing well

Recent political events have really put a serious and gloomy feeling in the air. Many are afraid of losing their health care and benefits and that's not even half of what is going on. Rather than continue to focus on the negatives, I wanted to share with you a story of my favorite failure story.

A few years ago, I took an online jazz improvisation course. I was in way over my head as the course covered material that was new for me and a real stretch. I was excited by the challenge though and did my best with each homework assignment.

However, when I began to get zeros as my grade, (by other students in the class) I was at first very offended. I went on the forum for the class and wrote them a note, "To all of you who gave me a zero..." and I told them how hard I tried. But you know, we are not graded by the effort we make. We aren't graded for getting out of our comfort zone and showing the world our vulnerability. We are only graded by the final results and outcome of our efforts.

Each week, I had to post my recording and analysis of jazz tune. I had never tried to play a solo before on the guitar with a recording and all of the scales and chords and rhythms were pretty challenging even for the advanced player. I was failing the course but I did not know it at the time. Zero after zero, I still believed in what I did. It was hard to read the critical comments on my solos.

Then one day I got silly. We were to record a solo for this interesting Carla Bley song, "Olhos De Gato." I tried so hard to get a good recording but after about 49 takes, I decided to just wing it. I turned on the recording, whooped and hollered and laughed through the whole take. It was the best thing I had done in the class! It was definitely not a very good solo (especially after I lost focus halfway through) but it makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I love it that I got a zero for this. It makes me see that we don't have to do things for the approval of others. We can do it because we enjoy it. If trying something new means I fail to impress or to get a good grade,  it is worth it for the laughs it will always give me!

"Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time. The only people who never tumble are those who never mount the high wire. This is your moment. Own it. " - Oprah

Here it is for you to laugh as well:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election Day and making a difference

Yesterday was election day here in United States. I woke up in a good mood and after breakfast, I drove to cast my vote. Later, I arrived at the school where I teach music and while I waited for my students to arrive, I watched the voters come and go. After waiting for a long time and still no students, it occurred to me there must be some mistake. I went to check at the desk and sure enough, no classes today due to election day.

On my way home with my guitar in the back seat, I got an idea to spontaneously drop in a nursing home I have not been to for a long time. When I arrived, I was greeted by an elderly woman pushing a wheelchair that had plastic containers of cat food on the seat. She was coming from the back porch area when I went to say hello. After seeing the cat food, I asked, "Are there cats living here?"  She turned and pointed to the porch and said, "Yes we have 4 that live here and I just got done feeding them."    I told her I would like to meet them and we walked to the porch as she told me their names were: "Spikey, Sparky, Spunky and Starry. " I always enjoy meeting a fellow animal lover.

Once we were done visiting, I went inside to see who was around and who might want to sing a few songs. I met up with two elderly African American women sitting in the living room. At first, they eyed me suspiciously and asked, "Where are you from?? What is your name? " I told them my name and that I came by to see if anyone wanted to sing. One of them smiled and said, "Sing something. " So I started singing favorite Spiritual of mine:

"Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside
down by the riverside, Gonna lay down my burden.... "

Immediately the women's faces brightened and they sang along. Next we sang:

"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

We kept going for a long while. I was amazed with how fast I went from being a suspicious stranger to a friend in music. One of them asked, "So, how often are you gonna start coming here? "  When it was time to go, they thanked me for coming and told me to come back again soon. I left feeling happy and that I made a small difference.

This morning I woke up to the news of the election results. Many people are very upset with our new president. I too wanted another outcome and yet my experience yesterday at the nursing home fills me with hope. I can only do what i am given to do and that is music.  Though many are discouraged now, I know that music unites and heals and brings people together.
I will keep on keeping on singing my songs and doing the best I know. Please do  not lose heart. We will get through this!

God Bless America.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Songwriting, Cochlear implant testing and International classes, oh my!

Last week was very busy and interesting.  I love the diversity of my work. On Tuesday, I spent the day at JMU as a cochlear implant research participant. The day involved working on one test which I had to listen carefully to a series of two conflicting beeping lines of sounds --one in low frequency and the other in high frequency. The task was to determine whether there was a delay at the end of the line or not. This one task I did for 4.5 hours! I was to focus on the low sound while the high frequency sounds were there to try to distract me. At times I felt really able to hear the delay in the line and others I could not tell at all. Doing such focused tests can be hard but it is also fun for me.

On Thursday, I gave my second presentation to UVA's international students in my series, "The American Experience Through Music." This class I taught them some Civil Rights songs and how some of the old African Spirituals were brought back into popularity during that time. Songs like, "Oh Freedom," "Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child." We especially enjoyed singing together, "Calypso Freedom," which is an improvisational call and response chant based on the Jamaican song, "Banana Boat Song" by Harry Belafonte (who was a big civil rights activist)  The picture above is of me at Minor Hall at UVA with my ESL students.

Friday I co-led a songwriting workshop for my VSA (very special arts) group. We gave the class a list of subjects to vote on to write about: Animals, Friends, Birthdays, Holidays. They voted we write about all of these :) So, we brainstormed to vote upon two animals who become friends and they were a horse and a turkey. We then gave the students options for the kind of song to write: Blues, Bluegrass, Country, etc. They decided they wanted to have the song be both a Blues and a Bluegrass song. Hm.  I was not sure how we were going to pull of of this together but we did it! And the resulting song was very funny! It began as a Blues song where both the Horse and Turkey had the blues because they were all alone. Somehow, they meet and become friends and that's when the song turns into Bluegrass. The students were divided up as either a Horse or a Turkey and they made sounds of the animals when it came to expressing their voices.

It was all a lot of fun and now I am ready for a new week. I wonder what will happen next ??

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The American Experience Through Music

Back in the late 90s I worked as a temp at the University of Virginia International Center .   Something I enjoyed most while working there was watching them learn about American culture in their English language groups. My favorite was their book group where they would read American novels and discuss them. I was challenged by the teacher then to summarize, "To Kill a Mockingbird," in one sentence. It cannot be done!

The book group gave me the idea that a similar study group could be formed to learn about American music.  So, my new series was born. In our first lesson we discussed, "This Land is Your Land," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Wayfaring Stranger." They are great examples of a folk song, African-American spiritual and a Gospel song respectively.

I passed out the lyrics and sang for them and each song brought up questions and comments. What does it mean "No Trespassing?" in "This Land is Your Land"?  One student answered, "not allowed?"  Yes and that was the main point of the song because the lyrics say next:

"On the other side, it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me."

In other words, this land is made for everyone. No matter your social class, ethnic background, skin color, etc. "This land was made for you and me."

Next I asked, "How does the song, "Wayfaring Stranger," make you feel"? One student answered, "It makes me feel like how I feel right now, far away from home." Yes. It's a song written back in the 1700s about the plight of the pilgrims and the hope of going to a better place in the afterlife.

Then I showed them some videos of Bluegrass music  Bill Monroe and Alison Kraus.  But the real treat was of this performance of the popular Old Time band  Carolina Chocolate Drops:

Our next class we'll focus on Blues and Jazz. Looking forward to that!!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Joyful times

Do you remember times when you were so excited about something you could not sleep? Times when after something so joyous happened to you that you daydreamed about it for daze (pun intended :) afterward?

Working with this group of special needs young adults this week brought back that feeling for me. I collaborated with a local music therapist and together we taught a workshop on songwriting. Of the topics voted on (choices were: fall, friendship, love, music) - the group decided to write about music.  Everyone contributed some of the lyrics and together we came up with a song that made everyone so happy to sing.

The first verse listed favorite bands and singers - Katy Perry and Led Zeppelin made the list. The chorus was my favorite part.  We sang, "Bands, singers and fans."  I remembered being a child when the Beatles' movie, "Help" came out and being in the audience while young women screamed through the whole thing. (I did not understand this at all).  Remembering how crazy excited some people can get about their favorite music, I suggested that we screamed after singing the word, "fans." That really made our song fun! Every time we came to that part- everyone jumped up screaming like a crazy fan.

This made me remember times in my teens when I saw a concert that was so good, I did not sleep afterwards and I would daydream in school for days after. When I first started playing the guitar, I loved Neil Young and I can remember a concert I went to where I ran down to the front of the stage and just stared up at him. It was hard to believe he was a real human being and not something larger than life.

It's been a long time since I have felt that kind of super charged excitement about things. Sure, I feel enthusiastic and happy but it is a more calm version from what I felt as a teenager. It was a good reminder of being in touch with the simple things in life and being happy.

Have you been to a concert recently that had you all jazzed up? Keep up that joy! :)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tales from a Blue Heart

This fall I am entering my 12th year working at the hospital as a therapeutic musician. It continues to be such a rewarding job that I love so much.  I meet people in what may be one of their worst moments in life. Though I walk in their room a stranger, music brings them comfort and connects us in a way that nothing else would. Since the guitar is such a popular instrument,  many feel an immediate connection to it and either play the guitar themselves or know someone close to them that did.

Yesterday, when I presented myself to the nursing station at the NNICU (Neurological ICU), I was given a patient to play for who was being visited by his family. The nurse said, "it's a lively group in there!"

Sure enough, it was a  lively group of 7 family members all from MI come to be with their loved one in the hospital. When the patient saw my guitar, he asked for Jimi Hendrix.  (I often get these kinds of requests, which are meant to be jokes :)   Yet he did not know that Jimi Hendrix was one of my biggest inspirations for taking up the guitar back in 1975. That was a time when bands like, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd,  were popular.  At the recreation center where I hung out in high school, we used to make up line dances to Jimi Hendrix songs. Back then I was so absorbed with the music, I did not dance with them but sat right next to the speaker and drummed along with the songs. (I was a drummer in high school band)

Anyway, his Hendrix reference gave me ideas for music he would like. Usually in ICU, I don't play much upbeat music or pop songs because I am usually working to relax the patient and bring down their heart rate. But this man was sitting up in a chair (often this means for medical reasons they need to be "up" physically for circulation and other reasons).

So I launched into the Beatles, "Here Comes the Sun" as my first song. Instantly I saw the song was known and loved by everyone in the room. Two of the women got teary eyed and had an expression of surprise.  I often feel an intuition of what to play and I was glad I hit a common chord with them.

The man was eating his lunch and nodding along to the music as the others were video taping and photographing me. I used to be uncomfortable with this kind of reaction but I realize it is not a usual occurrence for people to experience live music in a hospital room.

Since the patient was a guitar lover, my next selection was "Classical Gas" -- a very famous guitar instrumental. I find that song is a real connector because it is so well known and everyone seems to have memories attached to it.

After a few more songs,  we all sat and talked awhile and I learned they were from Michigan which is also where my family is from.  When I was getting ready to leave, one of the women collected money to give me as a tip. I told them I appreciated their generosity but I could not accept it.   I don't often get people doing that, so I was a little overwhelmed by the gesture. Also, I didn't want to hurt their feelings for wanting to give back to me. In the end, they understood why I didn't take the money. Also they gave me much more than any money could give.

Pictured in this post is a coloring piece I did recently that I call Tales from a Blue Heart. It is about healing from the grief of the loss of my mother as well as one of my best friends. Though the heart is blue, it is surrounded by love and memories.
Thanks so much for reading and Happy September!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Invocation of the Mystery Guest

Hi everyone! Today I wanted to tell you the story of how one of my solo guitar pieces came to be. First of all, about the title. When I first moved here to Charlottesville, VA (from Chicago) I was invited to a women's gathering. She asked me, "Do you want to be the mystery guest?"  This question really intrigued me because it gave a name for how I felt much of my life. Kind of of an outsider but not in a negative way. I mean there is a difference between being an outcast and a "mystery guest."
Little did I know that in accepting this invitation nearly 30 years ago, I would still have these friends in my life.

So now onto the song posted here. It was a cold winter morning and I picked up my guitar and this piece emerged. I never forgot the invitation of being the mystery guest though it was many years ago. I knew right away that the music that came would be perfect for the mystery guest theme. So.. that's the story.

I love how songs come about and how they make a sonic memory album and soundtrack of our lives.

I hope you enjoy!